Many of us at The Solute are big fans of the CW musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and if you haven’t seen it, I strongly advise you to visit the CW’s website and catch up, because it is one of the best shows around. I know that’s a grand, highly questionable statement in this alleged second golden age of television, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes a damn good case for itself week after week. There’s the wonderful sense of humor, its incisive look at its protagonist’s warped mental state, and – most germane to this discussion – its consistently excellent songs, almost all of which carry a writing credit by co-creator and star Rachel Bloom.
In many ways a television musical is the logical culmination of Bloom’s career so far, which at this point includes two albums, dozens of YouTube videos, and an early stint writing sketches and songs on the free-form animated sketch show Robot Chicken. She’s covered a lot of ground in a short period of time, and it’s interesting to watch her return to certain themes and targets in her work. To start this short series off, let’s take a look at her independently produced YouTube videos.
“Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury”
Did you know this video was nominated for a Hugo Award? Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form in 2011. It was up against three episodes of Doctor Who (technically four, as the two-part series 5 finale was nominated as one entry) and an animated Australian short that went on to win the Best Animated Short Oscar. That’s pretty excellent company, and as it stands this is probably Bloom’s best song outside of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s a really great rock song in its own right, with an incredibly catchy melody and a kickass vocals. The lyrics are hilarious, but as with Bloom’s other great songs there’s an underlying sense of sincerity that makes it more than a novelty song. Lesser writers would have been satisfied with the joke of a nubile young woman wanting to fuck an octogenarian geek icon, and making all kinds of double-entendres parodying his most famous titles, but Bloom layers in a genuine love of Bradbury’s work that both undermines and strengthens the joke. Bloom’s character wants to fuck Bradbury not just as a riff on over sexualized pop starlets, but because his work is genuinely important to Bloom and worth celebrating.
The video drives home that satirical point in how much imagery it takes from Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” video, specifically its jailbait vision of Britney with her schoolgirl outfit and pigtails, which Bloom (and director Paul Brignati) subverts by including a series of weird adolescent details, such as a light-up toothbrush and the retainer Bloom wears while in bed. However, this focus on the childish end of the “not a girl, not yet a woman” fetish allows Bloom to explore the impact a master author has on a developing mind. As she notes in the lyrics, she was his number one fan by the time she was twelve, which marks her as a voracious reader, something that never comes up in teenybopper hits. In Bloom’s view, physical and intellectual development are inseparable, which smartly circles back to the central joke of how Bradbury’s work is so “stimulating.” (There is perhaps no better visual encapsulation of this idea than Bloom reading The Martian Chronicles by flashlight under her sheets, while exaggeratedly masturbating)
Interestingly, as we’ll come to see, this song is something of an outlier in Bloom’s work, lacking sketch structure and her pet theme of mental illness (including sociopathy and depression) that show up in a lot of her other work.
“I Steal Pets”
This one actually premiered on College Humor, but if divided everything Rachel Bloom did by specific Internet platform this series would be really ungainly.
As I said before, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” is an outlier in Bloom’s work, focusing more on the gleeful celebration of her favorite author than satire. With “I Steal Pets,” we get a far more accurate, if early and roughshod, representation of Bloom’s sensibilities, with a candy-coated dance-pop sound enhancing the stark ruthlessness of her disturbed protagonist, in this case a bubbly, bullied girl who gets retribution by stealing the pets of her tormenters. She doesn’t just steal them (and keep them in her shed), but she dresses them up like their owners to help enact her fantasy of being popular and liked. It’s a strange cry for help, and the sheer ambitiousness of it foreshadows Rebecca Bunch’s many machinations at the heart of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Musically, the period in American pop this song is parodying had a sort of sonic singularity, making it difficult to pin down her exact sources of inspiration, though if I had to take a guess it’s probably Rebecca Black. The middle school setting and excessive auto-tune largely recall Black infamous “Friday,” and the casual verbal abuse seems like an obvious inversion of that song’s Junior High fantasy. One of the many highlights here is Bloom’s brilliantly goofy riff on guest rap verses made up of a remixed dog bark.
“I Was a Mermaid and Now I’m a Pop Star”
In addition to pet themes, every humorist has at least a couple of specific targets that they love to riff on again and again, and this video introduces two of Bloom’s early favorites: Ke$ha and The Little Mermaid. The musical cues are undeniable – especially the melodic patter/rap, stylistically accented with autotune that was the vocal signature of Ke$ha’s breakthrough single “Tik Tok,” as well as the aggressively noxious party girl persona. It’s in this characterization that Bloom finds a common ground between the Mermaid and the pop star, highlighting and enhancing the selfishness that spurred Ariel into leaving behind her entire world. A selfishness that quickly mutates the mermaid into, as Bloom describes in the description of her video, “an asshole.” The result is some hilariously weird imagery, like several hangers-on snorting cocaine off Bloom’s tail, while Bloom does a line off a fish; or putting out a cigarette on the chest of a cabana boy.
It’s interesting to note, though, that while I call the Mermaid Ariel, this isn’t necessarily a parody of the Disney version of the character. While she shares a lot of qualities, including the shell-bra and the distinctive red hair, the specifics of the mermaid mythos here don’t come from the Disney movie – or the original fairy tale, for that matter. It seems, as with the broad strokes of the pop parody, that Bloom didn’t want to settle on just one version of the Little Mermaid story, allowing her to invent her own take on the material. That’s good parody, taking something familiar and subverting the core of it while creating a framework that lets it stand on its own.
“Pictures of Your Dick”
Sometimes comedy songs are deceptively complicated, full of subtextual critique about form, content, and the foibles of humanity. Each listen revealing a new angle, a satirical barb couched in the music, or a bit of characterization that paints a more complex and deranged portrait of the character performing the song.
And sometimes it’s just a perfect confluence of dick jokes.
“Pictures of Your Dick” is a style parody of forlorn piano ballads, and like many of Bloom’s songs it’s built like a sketch, founded on one central joke and growing outwards until it reaches a logical punchline. In this case, a young woman is so despondent about a breakup that all she can do is alternate lying around crying over memories of better times, and posting pictures of her ex-boyfriend’s dick on the Internet. It’s a series of crude, increasingly silly gags, but what really pushes it over the top into all-time classic is the way Bloom absolutely sells her character’s anguish. The production is seriously stripped down, largely just Bloom accompanied by a piano with some low-key strings, and it winds up a showcase for her truly impressive vocals. Bloom has a strong, clear voice that often gets downplayed or masked by the conventions of pop parodies, or the voice of a character, but here she really gets to show off her talent and training.
The most distinctive touch of the video is the titular penis, blurred out every time its image appears on screen. That’s funny enough, but the pictures around the dick get increasingly elaborate, including a Photoshopped Friends poster that features a big pink blur in the middle of the group. There’s a whimsy to Bloom’s despair, which only further emphasizes the completely straight vocal performance.
“You Can Touch My Boobies”
We live in a hyper-sexualized society that is, at the same time, incredibly ignorant about sex, a sentiment perhaps best exemplified whenever critics complain that sexual content in media is pitched squarely at adolescent boys. This song (and its video) is the logical extreme of that argument, literally taking place in the head of a twelve year old boy named Jeffrey Goldstein who’s dozed off at Hebrew School and fantasizes about his teacher. (In what is unquestionably the video’s subtlest critique on the male gaze – this is a video that features a boob-shaped car – Bloom’s teacher is dressed very conservatively, sporting a long-sleeved brownish shirt and long black dress skirt that probably goes down to her ankles; she might not even be wearing any makeup.)
Lyrically, Bloom’s primary focus is on on three key facets of a horny teenage boy’s psychology, and how they work together: sexual id, ignorance, and guilt. I’ll admit that ignorance is an incredibly broad term, encompassing not just his misunderstanding of the female body (“I’ll show you my vagina, which is located on my stomach somewhere”) but of sex in general. Jeffrey is almost alarmingly uninformed, and it seems that the sexiest thing he can come up with is touching the titular boobies. Even that relatively benign desire prompts his subconscious to summon Golda Meir to chastise him for his dirty thoughts, telling him that he’s a disgrace to Israel and that he’ll grow up to be a rapist.
Much like “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” this is a song about the awkward transition between adolescence and adulthood, and it’s a smart thematic decision to set this at a point where Jeffrey is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, the symbolic transition to manhood (hehe… “manhood”). Also like “Bradbury,” a lot of the genius is in the details. Lyrically, Bloom paints a wonderfully specific portrait of Jeffrey Goldstein’s life. He fantasizes about taking a girl on a date to an arcade, revels in the privacy of his parents going out to dinner at Beni Hana, and his schoolwork has seeped far enough into his brain that even during a sexy dream he can recite facts about minerals. My favorite visual touch is the sign on his bedroom door warning trespassers that they’ll be banished to Azkaban.
“We Don’t Need A Man”
More than any other video I have discussed/will discuss in this series, “We Don’t Need A Man” feels the most like it could easily be dropped into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and not just because the show has done a similar deconstruction of empowerment anthems with “Put Yourself First.” Bloom’s heartbroken character here has the extreme romantic obsession and crippling self-doubt that looms so large in the character of Rebecca Bunch, and she gives a similarly fearless performance, half-speaking her lines in a weak, atonal voice to fully sell the joke of just how not well Bloom’s character (named Rachel) is taking this break up.
The other reason this song would fit so well into that show is because of the way it handles a similarly complex feminist dialogue. The song and video are clearly critical of surface-level empowerment anthems that exalt women not for who they are, but by their lack of romantic entanglement, or for being rid of a man who did them wrong, which means that the songs are still ultimately about men. In this case, Bloom criticizes these types of songs by leaning into the problem, paring a desperate, unstable woman against her friend, Shaina, who is singing the song straight. Rachel’s increasingly pathetic, almost anti-feminist behavior in her unhinged desire to get her man back ironically draws attention back to the women in the scenario.
This theme is further explored in the video, which constantly cuts between the music video soundstage of the girls in front of a giant light up sign that spells out “EMPOWERED” and Rachel in her apartment. Rachel may be obsessed with her man, but the home environment creates a much more detailed personal portrait. Not a flattering portrait, but one that contains a lot of concrete information about who she is as a person. We know that she has a dog (the same one from the bridge of “I Steal Pets,” you’ll notice), is a slob, and that struggles with her weight/body image, while all what we know about Shaina (that she’s “stronger” and “better off alone”) still define her exclusively in the context of her ex-boyfriend.
“Die When I’m Young”
In her second Ke$ha parody, Bloom winds up taking on a much larger target in the form of our cultural obsession with untimely death. There isn’t a medium out there that doesn’t romanticize the tragedy of dying young, though it’s most publicly tied in with music, especially with things like The 27 Club. Part of the assumed glamor is the relatively quick nature of death: plane and automobile accidents, drug overdoses, suicide, etc., but there are far more protracted, painful ways to die, and this video is both hilarious and painful for deeply digging into that concept.
It’s worth noting that, as with “We Don’t Need A Man,” Bloom’s character here is named “Rachel,” and in a way I think this is an attempt on Bloom’s part to give a little empathy to her characters. Compare this Ke$ha parody to “I Was A Mermaid And Now I’m A Pop Star.” There is much more authorial distance in “Mermaid,” and as a result Bloom spends the entire song calling the Mermaid a selfish asshole. In “Die When I’m Young” she still riffs on the dissonance of a vacuous pop star dealing with a fatal diagnosis, but she also takes that character on an actual emotional journey. Rachel experiences shock when she receives the call from her doctor, spending a verse grappling with her reality against the cavalier chorus. She then enters a stage of denial, attempting to live her normal life, even as she gets dizzy and throws up while clubbing. She even seems on the road to acceptance when she enters the hospital, indulging in some really solid gallows humor that gives the impression of acceptance. (“Doctors give me heavy sedatives, OMG I’m such a stoner/Hands are feeling up my body, ’cause I’m an organ donor”)
That journey takes an unexpected turn, however, when Rachel hallucinates a fetus she aborted (a hilariously Muppet-looking puppet) spitting a guest rap verse, and she starts panicking. The closing moments of the song where Rachel starts freaking out are played over the top enough that the song remains funny, but there’s still an edge to these moments that makes it clear Bloom isn’t laughing at her impending death. This is an important step in Bloom’s development as a humorist that will, again, be honed further in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
“NOBODY WILL WATCH THE F*CKING TONY AWARDS WITH ME!”
Unlike every other Bloom song I’ve covered so far, this one isn’t a pop parody, and therefore doesn’t have that “music video” look. There’s a certain crudeness to the cinematography, favoring natural lighting that, with its many open windows and doors, means you often have scenes that are over and under-exposed at the same time. In a weird way, though, this works in the video’s favor, grounding the proceedings in the real world. Rachel (yes, third time, and apparently playing a hellish version of herself, according to the video description) may be running around singing to people (including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-star Vella Lovell), but no one gives any indication that they can hear the music, no one dances, and everyone regards her actions as frankly odd. This isn’t a fantasy space where Rachel’s actions act in service of a joke without consequence – people get pissed at her, and in the end she gets tasered by a cop.
Bloom really digs into the vault for this parody of DJ Casper’s “Cha-Cha Slide,” in which the very premise of instructional dance songs becomes a testament to the strange rituals of obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s a simple joke, fitting in perfectly with the theme of mental illness that runs through Bloom’s work. The video itself is a pitch-perfect recreation of late ’90s/early ’00s music videos, full of wonderful detail… appropriate for a song about OCD, I suppose. There’s the full-frame aspect ratio, but there are certain especially evocative fashion choices that are not only spot-on, but kind of hilarious, like the guy in the Orlando Magic jersey.
That about does it for this arbitrary selection of Rachel Bloom’s YouTube music videos that didn’t all originate on YouTube. Join me next time when I’ll look at some of the music-based sketches from her time writing for Robot Chicken.